Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Recasting the benefits of good public transit as a civil rights issue

October 31, 2011 - 01:16 PM
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What do commuters deserve? (Photo: flickr/ep_jhu)

To what extent is public transit a dimension of the civil rights debate?

Many people, after all, rely on public transportation to get to work, both here and all over the United States. They take buses, Metro trains, light rail, the MARC, and other options. Increasingly people dismiss the automobile and use Zipcar, Capital Bikeshare, and might be able to take advantage of other transit options like streetcars, if those ever do appear (the District hopes to debut the first functioning lines in mid-2013, last we've heard). In the D.C. metro area, nearly 200,000 households manage to get by without a car. Is a functioning, reliable public transit system not only wise for the reasons of reducing congestion and helping the environment but also simply a reflection of what people deserve?

At The Root, founder and CEO of PolicyLink Angela Glover Blackwell suggests that yes, a functioning, funded public transit system is a vital part of the civil rights debate and points to several cities around the country, from Detroit to Little Rock, that struggle with and seek to revitalize their transit options. She also identifies the way our Congress fumbles its way forward with the proper funding. What we need, according to Blackwell, is wisdom in our transit choices and funding.

Blackwell notes the following:

Equity advocates must demand wiser investment of transportation dollars. Policymakers must reduce the burden on millions of struggling families who rely on public transit that is available and affordable. Without urgent attention, this lack of transportation will continue to be a proxy for leaving whole communities out of the American mainstream.

Despite all of the political posturing hailing the environmental, economic and other merits of a cutting-edge network of public transit systems, the nation has fallen woefully short of advancing a sustainable, 21st-century transportation system for the future.

Is Blackwell right?

My instincts say yes, and I recall all the ways that transportation in the D.C. region is tied to jobs and where households are located.

"Investing in transit is not a nicety," Nat Bottigheimer, assistant general manager of planning and joint development at WMATA, told crowds at an October 19 Rail~Volution conference session. "There's a business case for it, there's a policy case for it." The Metro official underscored his perspective by explaining that if the transit agency's system hadn't been built in the mid-'70s, then there would have been more than a million more car trips over the past three and a half decades. We might have needed a second Beltway to support all the traffic.

Other panelists from that session noted how people often rely on public transit to get to their jobs — and how the jobs are often not as close to their households as they should be. Wise city planning will help bring employers closer to the people they employ. Aubrey Thagard of the Prince George's County Office of the County Executive spoke of the challenge in his corner of Maryland. The D.C. region has integrated these transit-oriented development principles in the past, and it's paid off. Consider the 2002 Smart Growth award that Arlington County won for its Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor. The Environmental Protection Agency observed the following at the time:

The transit successes and corresponding environmental performance are impressive. Metro ridership doubled in the corridor between 1991 and 2002. Nearly 50 percent of corridor residents use transit to commute. As of the end of 2001, the corridor has over 18.3 million square feet of office space, 3.4 million square feet of retail/commercial space, over 3,000 hotel rooms, and 22,500 residential units - with much more under construction. Creating this development at typical suburban densities could consume over 14 square miles of open space compared to the roughly two square mile Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

To lack this balance and functioning public transit inevitably will leave some individuals behind in society and reduce the opportunities available. As WMATA struggles in its Metro Forward repairs, there are additional implications. We may have a train system but how much can commuters rely on it? There are delays every weekend, stations closed, and growing doubts from some individuals about whether the ride is worth the cost. One Bethesda resident told me at a Halloween party last night that she was beginning to give up completely after three years as a Metro rider — that the escalator problems and delays were directly contributing to her decision to just hop in her car when she could. Hopefully the results of Metro Forward and a continued dedication to transit-oriented development such as in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor will reverse decisions like that.

Public transit is directly tied to housing and jobs and the fabric of what allows success, in nowhere more apparent as in big cities. These successes and failures, as Blackwell makes the case, have far greater implications than just transportation. They speak to the core of how people of all incomes live and move forward and grow — and their importance is central to the civil rights and well-being of our broader American community. 

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